Today a 2000 foot long floating tube was towed out of San Francisco Bay, departing for the Pacific Garbage Patch where 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic swirl around in a perpetual vortex of aquatic currents. The goal? To skim the areas surface for plastic they can recycle later on.
The idea first began 6 years ago when 18 year old boyan slat went scuba diving and realized there was more plastic than fish, he asked himself “why can’t we just clean this stuff up?”
Unfortunately removing all that plastic is more difficult then it may seem. Since pieces constantly flutter around with the ocean currents it can be tricky for scientists to gauge anything accurately enough, for the distribution profile may be entirely different by the time they establish a plan.
So Boyan proposed utilizing a barrier equipped with an underwater net to skim the surface and gather floating plastic in one place for extraction later on. Of course this does not acknowledge any chunks that have sunken below a certain depth but it’s certainly a good start. The idea being to capture any larger floating chunks before they begin to deteriorate in to smaller unmanageable pieces that choke fish and decimate the food chain
“Once it’s broken down and in really, really minute pieces, it becomes really hard to take it out, and it’s far easier for it to end up in the food chain,” says Holierhoek.
Boyans journey began with a Ted talk that presented his solution to the audience in a digestible format. The video got so much positive press that he was able to launch a successful nonprofit in 2013 after raising 2.2 million dollars in crowdfunding.
“Ocean plastics are a legacy problem with no easy solution,” says Lonneke Holierhoek, COO of The Ocean Cleanup. “Without taking action, however, we are sure that the problem will only get worse.”
Over the past four years “Ocean Cleanups” engineers, originating from the oil and wind industry, have built scale models in the laboratory, ran successful computer simulations, trialed various parts in the North Sea as well as testing a giant piece of the system off the coast of Northern California. “It basically went straight into quite a nice storm,” says Holierhoek, which was one of the main concerns given the nature of surface conditions during a tropical storm for example.
“We were able to confirm that the system behaves as we would expect and would like to see it behaving.”
Since storms of this proportion create load forces that could potentially occur once in a century engineers have chosen HDPE plastic for it’s ability to endure such pressure while remaining flexible enough to bend with the waves. However, the group will only know for sure once the beta system is tested for a full winter in the Pacific Ocean.
“We haven’t been able to test the full system in its natural environment in the ocean to actually confirm that it behaves as we discovered during all of the model testing and all of the computer testing that we’ve done,” says Holierhoek.
Now a vessel is towing the 2000 foot long tube out of a shipyard in alameda california, under the bay bridge of alcatraz, golden gate bridge, eventually arriving at the pacific garbage patch. Most of the recyclables in this area are composed of fishing nets, water bottles and bags. The area, concentrated by swhirling ocean currents, is estimated to be twice the size of Texas and contains 16 times times more material than previously expected,
In order to keep a nylon screen submerged at least three meters below the surface, support structures are welded in to place along the length of the tube. Wind and waves push the tube faster then the currents beneath, allowing this screen to act as a filter for catching plastic that moving at a slower pace. Since the screen is longer in the middle this tube can bend in to a U-shape, cordoning off the just the right amount of space to extract plastic in a controlled environment. Every couple months, a boat comes back to scoop up the plastic for recycling.
Upon arrival, the tube is positioned in to a U-shape by the team and monitored for a couple weeks. Over the next year team members will live on a vessel next to the area in order to monitor progress. Wildlife experts will also be joining the project in order to study the impact of Ocean Cleanup on aquatic species.
There are some companies who’ve expressed interest in using the recycled plastic for their own products. It wouldn’t be the first time in fact Adidas has repurposed fishing nets to create a pair of sneakers in the past. After two months Ocean Cleanup expects to bring back their first load of material.
“It’s very contrary to what’s normal in the recycling industry, where recyclers use large volumes of very predictable and very constant material and they recycle it to generally downgrade from what it was originally,” says Holierhoek. “We are trying to recycle discarded packaging into high-end consumer products.”
”After a year of operation we will have the information that we so desperately want, and feed that back into a redesign phase,” she says. “We do expect that the next generation of the Cleanup system needs to be even bigger and better and smarter.”
“I am concerned that the general public can look at a project like this and see it as a panacea for the plastic pollution problem,” says Eben Schwartz, who manages the Marine Debris Program for the California Coastal Commission. “The fact is there is no one solution to this problem.”
There is 540 million pounds of plastic in the ocean’s five vortices, while another 18 billion pounds of plastic is deposited every year.
“It’s clear to everybody that we need to stop increasing the abundance of plastic debris that is [going] in the ocean, but it’s also clear that we already have a lot in it, and that it is going to take a long time for that debris to get out of the system even if we stopped producing at all,” says David Die, a professor in the University of Miami’s Department of Marine Ecosystem and Society who is working with the Ocean Cleanup to research effects of the project on fish. “Let’s hope that the Ocean Cleanup people have gotten into something that is a really effective solution. It seems like from the work that’s done in the lab and in some of the pilot projects that there is some real hope that this will work.”